On the set of ‘The Sympathizer’ with Park Chan-wook

On the set of ‘The Sympathizer’ with Park Chan-wook

By: - Entertainment Editor
/ 12:15 AM April 13, 2024

Director ParkChan-wook (right) gives instructions to Hoa Xuande

Director Park Chan-wook (right) gives instructions to Hoa Xuande on the set of “The Sympathizer.”

Actor-producer Robert Downey Jr. shared in an article for the New Yorker last Monday that getting South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”) to crack a smile or even raise an eyebrow became part of his motivation on the set of HBO’s acclaimed seven-episode series “The Sympathizer.”

Of course it’s understandable for “The Avengers” star and recent Oscar winner (for “Oppenheimer”) to seek a measure of approval and affirmation from his director because, in the series, his task as an actor is far from conventional—he portrays four different characters!


When we spoke to the legendary 60-year-old South Korean auteur last year, we only had to mention a Filipino actress’ name for his courteous but professorial demeanor to thaw instantly: Mercedes Cabral, who was part of the cast of his Cannes-winning 2009 film “Thirst.”


The series, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel, is an espionage thriller, a cautionary immigration tale and a political “dramedy” all cleverly rolled into one visual and thematic spectacle. It has an 89-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes so far.

Robert Downey Jr. playing one of his multiple roles

Robert Downey Jr. playing one of his multiple roles in “The Sympathizer.”


Communist agent

Needless to say, we were beyond thrilled when we, along with two Thai journalists, were invited to visit its Bangkok set and interview director Park in mid-March last year.

Set to premiere on HBO and HBO Go on Monday, “The Sympathizer” follows a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist agent from North Vietnam, only referred to as The Captain (Vietnamese Australian actor Hoa Xuande), in the South Vietnamese army.

Following the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the protagonist then takes up residence in a Vietnamese refugee community in the United States, where he continues to gather intelligence and report back to the Viet Cong. Unknown to his allies, however, he also doubles up as a spy for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).


Park Chan-wook may be best-known for tackling contentious themes framed by disturbing violence, sexually explicit scenes and eye-candy set pieces, but he consistently manages to put his formidable storytelling chops to good use to turn his provocative ideas into award-winning productions that reap great rewards at the world’s top film festivals in Cannes (“Decision to Leave,” “Thirst”), Berlin (“Night Fishing,” “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK”) and Venice (“Lady Vengeance”).

Sandra Oh as Sofia Mori

Sandra Oh as Sofia Mori —PHOTOS COURTESY OF HBO GO


First interview

“This is my very first time to do an interview regarding ‘The Sympathizer,’ so first of all, I’d like to express how delighted I am to sit here with you,” the director told us through his interpreter during a 30-minute chat before we were whisked off to a sprawling set under the scorching sun that transported us back to a few days before the fall of Saigon. “The reason why I decided to take part in this project is because Korea was also involved in the Vietnam war.”

The scene, which can be seen 33 minutes into the first episode, shows Hoa’s character having a couple of beers in a carinderia (restaurant) with his bosom buddies (Fred Nguyen Khan and Duy Nguyen).

But Park’s decision to helm “The Sympathizer” goes beyond historical pertinence. “My father was a soldier during the Vietnam War,” he recalled. “He was a professor at a military training academy, much like West Point. He didn’t really see action on the battlefield, but I still remember seeing one particular photograph that he took during his short visit to a Korean military camp.

“Korea and Vietnam share a lot of things in modern history, one of them is the fact that we were both under the control of foreign imperialist forces. Thereafter, our countries were divided into north and south, and then thrust into a civil war because of very extreme ideological conflicts between the two factions.

“For a person [like me] who was aware of this deeply rooted history, it didn’t feel like someone else’s story because I felt like this was something I could relate to. I knew I could handle this material well. The original novel [it’s based on] has spy-thriller elements to it, which I gravitate toward. It’s one of my favorite genres.

From left: Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan and Duy Nguyen

From left: Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan and Duy Nguyen


‘Absurd humor’

“But I was also attracted to the absurdity of its humor. So as I was writing and rewriting the series, I was trying to elevate those elements that I mentioned. Everybody related to this show has been telling me, ‘I never knew that this story was so funny!’” And it is—with a much darker scope and bent.

Asked if he had read the novel before he was offered to adapt it for the big screen, Park shook his head and said, “Not really. The original novel had been translated into Korean, but I never had a chance to read it. I read it only after the producer proposed this project to me.”

Given the presence of Downey and Sandra Oh (as The Captain’s romantic interest) in the cast—along with some scenery-chewing cameo appearances from instantly recognizable Hollywood actors (no spoilers here)—the director said that he treats all of them similarly. “This isn’t my first time working with English-speaking actors,” he explained. “I’ve had a lot of exposure working with very well-known English-speaking talents. I worked on a feature film called ‘Stoker’ [starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode],) and the six-part British series ‘Little Drummer Girl’ [with Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard].

“So, regardless of whether they’re American, British, Korean or Vietnamese, I think actors in general are of the same breed. We may speak different languages, but we [mostly] share the same sentiments.

“In terms of speaking or communicating with Robert Downey Jr., there’s always a translator around. However, it’s not like I need to explain everything in a long sentences… I can communicate with him through my eyes or via facial expression and he would understand what my intentions are and vice versa. Also, it isn’t that difficult to understand what he’s trying to communicate to me.”

When we told director Park how thrilled the whole Philippine indie community was when news came out about Mercedes Cabral’s casting in “Thirst”—which won for him the best director plum at Cannes in 2009—his face lit up with a warm smile and asked, “How is she doing? If you happen to come across her, please send Mercedes my regards. I do miss her.”

He added, “When she was working on the set of ‘Thirst,’ she was so adorable! Needless to say, she was superb in her role. She adjusted to the conditions of the Korean production process well, so everybody was very fond of her.

Happy for Mercedes Cabral

“I also remember that at the time, I couldn’t meet her for the actual audition, so I just watched her past works and sort of did the audition indirectly. I am happy to know that she continues to do well as an actress.”

For our part, when we told Mercedes recently about our chat with director Park, she thanked us over Facebook messenger, saying, “You made my day—no, you made my year! Thank you.”

The rest of our Q&A with Park Chan-wook:

What compelled you to turn the book into a seven-part series and not a film? What is it about long-form storytelling that’s more useful for this particular story?

I think this goes for all directors—I don’t think any director will say, “I’m going to direct a TV series now, then I’ll do a feature film next time.” That’s not the sort of mindset we have. In this case, I gravitated toward the novel of “The Sympathizer” and liked the idea of telling its story visually.

So, I thought, “What particular format is best-suited for this? After a lot of contemplation, I came to the conclusion that two hours would probably be too short in order to elevate the story and its various characters.

For example, Robert is playing different characters in this show. And if we were to do a two-hour feature, I feel like we wouldn’t have enough time to introduce all four characters. I didn’t want to take that route, that’s why I decided to make a TV series.

For this project, HBO is collaborating with A24, responsible for exceptional titles like “Past Lives,” “The Whale,” “Close,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “The Zone of Interest.” Can you talk about that partnership?

In the last couple of years, most of my favorite movies have been made by A24. HBO, on the other hand, has been making a good number of high-quality shows. I enjoyed watching A24’s horror movies by Ari Aster (“Midsommar,” “Hereditary”) and the first three seasons of HBO’s “True Detective.” “Chernobyl” was also awesome.

So, doing “The Sympathizer” turned out to be a learning experience for me, too… because they provide a lot of support and assistance in terms of respecting the creative people in their projects. They also give great notes, as needed.

Working with both felt like a very natural process, although I should also mention that we’re also coproducing this with Team Downey (Robert and Susan Downey’s production company) and Rhombus Media.

Whenever I’m working, I’m not the type to say that I prefer someone who tells me, “You can do whatever you want.” I want to hear smart opinions and [helpful] feedback—and that’s exactly what HBO has been doing.

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Catch “The Sympathizer “from April 15 on HBO and HBO Go.

TAGS: Park Chan-wook, The Sympathizer

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